I've spent a lot of time in the buyer's seat as a former manager, executive, and corporate buyer. I've observed both others' and my own reactions to sellers' presentations. And over the course of hundreds of pitches, I've developed a keen sense for what really works when selling to senior executives and the C-suite.
As a sales coach, trainer, and consultant, I hear a lot of well-intentioned advice about what it takes to sell to senior B2B buyers today. Some of it is great. Some of it is mediocre. And unfortunately, some of it is completely off the mark.
Let's face it: buying has evolved rapidly over the past five years or so. The swift growth of the Internet, the rise of procurement inside large corporations, and the corresponding drive to reduce costs mean B2B buyers are more educated, more opinionated, and more aware of their challenges and options for resolving them.
And the fact is, the world of selling has stood still by comparison. Sales trainers everywhere are still telling their students to "ask more questions," "listen to your client," and "present your offer." Somewhere, right now, there's a sales trainer saying those exact words to a room full of people.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not telling you to stop asking questions or stop listening. But you have to go further, and I'd like to discuss exactly what you can do to be more effective in selling to senior executives inside large corporations. And in order ot be more successful, many sellers will have to get out of some bad and deeply ingrained habits.
Below are five things most buyers wish they could say to sellers - and ways you, as a seller, can stand out from the rest of the pack:
1."Please do your homework before you come see me."
One of the most common complaints buyers have about sellers is that they walk into the room unprepared. Sure, they may have scanned a few articles about the company on the Internet and can repeat one of the CEOs latest quotes, but that's not sufficient.
Especially in complex and emerging industries, buyers feel that sellers don't understand their businesses. In fact, according to research by the Hinge Research Institute, the number one factor that dissuades buyers is a seller who is uninformed about their industry.
When I was a buyer for a financial services firm, I saw this as a cardinal sin. Financial services is a complex area, and spending the first twenty minutes of the meeting explaining what it is that we do, how we make money, how we go to market and how we sell was not time well spent.
As a buyer, if I take time out my busy schedule to meet with you, I expect to spend that time talking about my goals and the issues I face. (And yes, I expect some great ideas on how to address those challenges.) I don't expect to spend twenty minutes educating you on the ins and outs of my industry - or listening to a pitch, a whole other mistake that we'll discuss shortly.
How can you avoid being uninformed? Typically, research isn't enough. Pick your niche and make sure you have a rich understanding of that area. Unless you're comfortable discussing the more advanced ins and outs of an industry, you probably (quite literally) have no business being in the room.
2."Please listen to me. Understand what I'm trying to say."
Many sellers suffer from a condition that you might call "selective listening."
Now, these sellers usually appear to demonstrate all the right behaviors. After all, most of them have been through sales training, which almost always involves some kind of active listening component. You'll see them give off verbal and nonverbal signals, indicate agreement, ask follow-up questions, and build rapport with the buyer.
But there's precisely the problem: they only appear to demonstrate those behaviors.
In reality, they are listening only for opportunities to launch into an exposition on how their particular product, service, or offering is right for the buyer.
Buyers pick up on this tendency more than many sellers realize. It's relatively clear when someone is only pretending to listen. And when you're only listening for cues and opportunities, you're likely to miss out on a lot of other information that could help you in the future, from key relationships to broader context.
The solution here is simple: just listen. Listen without intent, without judgment, and without constantly formulating an answer in your head. Don't respond until at least five seconds of silence have gone by. And see what happens.
3."Please stop asking so many questions. I'm here to learn too, you know".
In simplified form, the basic premise of consultative selling goes something like this: ask questions, learn about a buyer's situation, propose a solution, help them see how your solution meets their needs, close the sale.
It's hard to argue with a logical process like this. In fact, through our research and experience at RAIN Group, we find that a lot of the basic foundations of consultative selling are still valid. But times have changed, and our approach to selling needs to evolve to keep up.
Today's savvy B2B buyer expects a certain amount of interaction in a meeting, to be sure. But while it's true that nobody likes sitting through a sales pitch, nobody likes to go through a cross-examination, either.
There is an old saying in sales: "listen 80%, talk 20%." For a variety of reasons, I don't believe this holds true anymore. Today, buyers expect you to educate with new ideas and perspectives. Propose potential solutions to the problem. Raise and examine potential pitfalls and risks. And collaborate with them to identify the best path forward.
Where strategic, well-executed questioning strategies are still an integral part of sales, buyers today expect you to arrive with an opinion - not just a notebook.
4."Stop. Pitching. Me."
I know, I know. First I'm telling you to not ask so many questions. And now I'm telling you to stop pitching as well. What gives?
In any sales process, there is a phase called "presenting the offer." It's typically the phase where sellers stop asking questions and outline a proposed approach they believe will address the problem.
When done well, it's the logical, timely and much-needed complement to the discovery phase, which came before it. Unfortunately, a lot of sellers put the cart before the horse: pitch first, ask questions later.
About a decade or so ago, I ran a procurement process for a 7-figure corporate purchase. To initiate the process, I sat down with a shortlist of preselected vendors. One was the absolute must-include contender in their industry: a large, blue-chip firm with a tremendous track record and "gold standard" reputation. The other was a fairly unknown upstart who had never done work in our industry and had no prior relationship with the company I represented.
In the end, the upstart won.
The blue-chip firm came into my office and proceeded to walk me through an 83-slide presentation. After 45 minutes, I wanted to ask my secretary to make a fake call, just to get me out of the meeting. After the meeting was over, I went to see my boss, and we both agreed it would be better to eliminate them from the process early on.
Game over, right then and right there.
By comparison, the upstart did all the things I am advocating: they asked questions, but also offered up opinions. They educated us with new ideas and perspectives. They warned us of certain risks that we hadn't recognized. And, finally, they built a rapport with us by cultivating an attitude that might be the most important aspect of sales today.
What is this attitude? That brings me to my next and final point...
5."It's not me versus you. It's us versus the problem."
The language of sales is not always a harmonious one. We talk about "overcoming objections." "Challenging the buyer." "Eliminating the competition." "Hitting targets."
This warlike jargon is a symptom of an underlying mindset: for ages, sellers have been taught to see buyers as "the adversary."
Meanwhile, buyers have chosen a different path. Recent research from RAIN Group identifies the top factors cited by buyers for selecting one firm over another. Number two on that list? "They collaborated with me."
To succeed today, you need to adopt an attitude of collaboration, not confrontation.
When I was a B2B buyer, I sat in on hundreds of pitches and watched the reactions around the room. Those sellers who did well knew their buyers' industries inside out, and were able to offer educated opinions and ideas on how to improve. They listened without looking for opportunities to sell. They asked questions, but only so they could learn enough to offer up opinions of their own. They never pitched, or did so in a very soft, low-key way and only when the timing was right. And they always - always - exhibited an attitude of collaboration.
In the past five years, the B2B buyer has evolved more than in the fifty years before that. Isn't it time we sellers followed in their footsteps?
Check out Inside the Buyer's Brain (it's free!) for more tips on knowing your buyers.
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